HC Deb 11 July 1924 vol 175 cc2700-13

Order for Second Reading read.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."


The object of this Bill is to raise a loan of £17,000,000 for the purpose of the carrying out telephone developments, which, it is estimated, we can carry out over two years. The last Act which was passed in 1922 authorised the raising of £15,000,000. The whole of that money has now been expended, and there is no money in hand to proceed with the programme for the remainder of the year. We, therefore, require that an Act should be passed this month to enable us to go on with the work during the year. I regret that when this matter was before the House on Tuesday, 1st July, I was not able to reply to certain questions put by hon. Members. The hon. Member for Salisbury (Major Moulton) put one or two questions.

3.0 P.M.

I should like at this stage to explain the position in relation to rural telephone facilities, a matter upon which the hon. Member asked for some information. I should like to tell him, and the House, that during the last two years rural telephone development has been proceeding at a pretty rapid pace. It is two years since the Treasury authorised a scheme for rural development, and under that scheme, in an area where eight subscribers can be obtained an exchange is established at a rental of £per quarter. The distance, for the minimum subscription of £2, has to be not more than 1½ miles from the exchange. In addition to that it is provided that rural party lines shall be established, and under that system farmers may have a telephone service for £1 a quarter, including local calls. Under the first arrangement, that is the telephone rural exchanges, we have already followed that matter up and authorised 600 exchanges, of which 500 have been completed. At the present time rural exchanges are being established at the rate of one per day or rather more. I may say that already very considerable loss is being incurred on these rural facilities, because for every exchange that is opened there is a loss of something between £60 and £70 per annum on an average. That the facilities already provided are being appreciated we have ample proof in the statement I have already made, that we are opening one of these exchanges practically every day.

One specific case was referred to by the hon. and gallant Member for Salisbury. It was suggested that we should provide facilities for a gentleman which we have been unable to do. The complaint was on this occasion that the Post Office was not sufficiently generous in giving the facilities asked for. The case in point was this: The telephone facilities were asked for for a man who lives between five and six miles from the nearest exchange at Salisbury. He lives between two or three miles from a post office call office. He desired that he should be given facilities from that call office. We discovered it was quite impossible to do this without going to very considerable expense. To begin with, the call office was not at all suitable for providing an exchange service. Before it could be put in order it would be necessary for us to erect a mile and a half of wire. There was a switchboard necessary, and then we should be required to erect 2½ miles of poles and wires from the call office to this gentleman's house. The cost of all this would be several hundreds of pounds. I can assure my hon. Friend that if the Post Office adopted a policy of providing at the normal tariff rate telephone facilities where it would involve the establishment of a separate exchange for one subscriber, one or two things would become inevitable: either we should have considerably to increase what is already high, the cost for the telephone service, or we should require to subsidise the service from State funds—neither of which projects I am sure the House would tolerate or approve of. I therefore hope my hon. and gallant Friend will realise that it will be quite impossible, much as we desire to give these people facilities in rural areas, to pursue a policy which would enable us to give a separate exchange for every individual subscriber living so far away as this gentleman.

Another question was raised by the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Central Hull (Lieut.-Commander Kenworthy). He pointed out that during the winter months the telephone subscribers in the whole area are very considerably inconvenienced on account of disturbances due to bad weather. He said that was largely due to the fact that overhead wires were in existence, and the remedy was to have underground cables He desired to know what progress was being made by the Post Office in the development of underground cables. May I point out that of the £17,000,000 asked for in this Bill between £8,000,000 and £9,000,000 will be devoted to underground work. At the present time telephone subscribers are being greatly inconvenienced by damage done to overhead wires in every part of the country, and it is the policy of the Post Office, as far as possible, to substitute underground cables for overhead wires. At the present time we have several big cables in course of construction, and we hope they will be put in use this year. We have also a number of other considerable schemes on hand, and hon. Members may rely upon it that, as rapidly as these underground cables can be brought into existence, the work will be completed by the Post Office.


Before the House consents to the Second Heading of this Bill. I think it is only fair that I should draw attention to one of two remarks which have been made by the Postmaster-General. The right hon. Gentleman painted a rather different picture of the telephone system in rural areas to that which I have had brought to my notice by those who have made complaints about it. He has told the House that it is the intention of the Department to spend between £8,000,000 and £9,000,000 on underground cables, and that statement was immediately succeeded by another in which the right hon. Gentleman said that the Post Office could not run a mile-and-a-half of wire and posts in order to secure one subscriber.

I ask the right hon. Gentleman to pay a little more consideration to the people who so badly require telephone facilities in our rural areas. He spoke of 1½ miles being a long distance to carry wires. My constituency measures 36 miles long by 38 miles wide, and what is a distance of 1½ miles in an area of that kind? He told the House that people in rural areas could obtain a telephone service for a payment of £2 a quarter, but that applies only to services where wires are not required for more than 1½ miles. Take the average village in Oxfordshire, and you will find there are very few houses there likely to require the telephone within 1½ miles of the Exchange. I would remind the Postmaster-General of a case which came before my notice in which a constituent wrote and told me that in order to obtain telephone facilities it would be necessary for him to pay no less than £22 10s. 0d. per annum, which is equivalent to the rent that this particular person is receiving for four cottages. That is an extraordinary amount, and when this person had erected this system there would have been 10 subscribers on the same lines, and this person's number was to be number 9.

If anyone wanted to ring him up, he would hear his bell ring nine times, and then he would know that it was he who was wanted, and not any of the other nine subscribers who happened to be on that same service. That is nothing short of antediluvian, and I hope the Postmaster-General will reserve some of this £17,000,000 for putting that sort of thing right. He says that the demand is not very great. I do not wonder that it is not very great when one comes to consider the exorbitant charges and the antiquated system one is likely to get. I hope the Postmaster-General will give us an undertaking that he will really try and do something to better rural telephone communication.


After the courteous way in which the right hon. Gentleman has explained the Bill, I do not want in the least to oppose it, but I do want to suggest to him the possibility of considering whether in many cases it would not be possible to instal something which is not really an exchange but much more like the extension which one uses in an office. There may be a house or two wanting to be in the position to be connected with a neighbouring town, and I would ask the right hon. Gentleman whether it would not he possible to have for them an extension such as some of us have in our houses whereby we can be put through to one room or the other. I think too a good many subscribers, if they could get nothing better, would be perfectly content with a day service while the Post Office was open. In that way, you would be able to get the telephone into a district and see whether it would be profitable to extend the exchange. In one particular case, a farmer, one and three quarter miles from a village post office, wanted to be connected with Salisbury, and, whereas the subscriber mentioned by my hon. and gallant Friend opposite was asked £22, this farmer was told that it could not be done under £35 a year. It seems to me that in such a case it would be quite unnecessary expense to form an exchange, and I would ask the Postmaster-General in the most friendly spirit whether it would not be possible to instal as a first step something which is not a real exchange but much more like an extension such as you see in an office.


I notice that the Postmaster-General smiles, but I am not going to bother him again about the Holy Island. I want to ask whether something cannot be done for some of the rural areas where you can get six subscribers but no more. In one of the rural areas in my constituency, they have been trying for some considerable time but they cannot get more than six, and I want to ask the right hon. Gentleman whether, if it be proved that there are no others who can afford the telephone, and that it is going to be of some advantage to the area, he could not, in those circumstances, see his way to grant a concession and allow the six subscribers to have the telephone installed.


I am bound to say that the Postmaster-General in this matter always meets us very readily. He has met me on one or two cases in a very friendly way. Is it inevitable in a sparsely populated area to insist strictly on the guarantees, especially in cases where there is really a great need for telephonic communication? The main point I wish to raise is in regard to the half-holiday in rural areas. Usually in rural areas the half-holiday is taken on a Saturday, whereas most of the village post offices are closed on Wednesday or Thursday. This causes great inconvenience to many people, and they think that this closing of the post Ace should synchronise with the village half-holiday. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will give that matter consideration.


I, too, have been left in a friendly way by the Postmaster-General. I have some applications still before him and I have a lively hope that they too will receive sympathetic consideration. I should like to support what has been said by several hon. Members with regard to rural areas. I have a very large rural area in my own constituency and I should like to ask the Department to apply something less than the present cast iron regulations to the applications for extensions of the telephone. I think there ought to be more elasticity and there might be a less stringent application of the stipulations to guarantees. Could the right hon. Gentleman not deal with this business as a commercial traveller would? Not long ago in my constituency there was a correspondence between the officials of the Post Office and some local people who were desirous of canvassing the neighbourhood in order to ascertain how many subscribers could be secured. They wrote to the Department to ascertain the approximate cost of the telephone extension, and they got a reply inquiring how many telephones were likely to be required. An answer to that was of course absolutely impossible. A man of local energy who wants to push a matter of that kind could not very well go to one of the potential subscribers and say: "Will you take the telephone, although I cannot tell you what it is going to cost?" On the other hand, the officials could name some sort of figure. We want something of that spirit. We want the Department to make a real endeavour to extend the telephone into areas where it is likely to be useful, and, if they could infuse a little more of that spirit, I think their efforts would be more successful.


I desire to join with the other rural Members in begging the Post Office to show real enterprise in the matter of the extension of telephones in rural areas. At elections, sometimes, I have had to talk about nationalisation, and hon. Members on the Labour Benches believe in nationalisation. I can assure my right hon. Friend, however, that one of the very arguments that I am able to use against nationalisation is the lack of enterprise that is displayed by the Post Office in carrying out what, after all, is a very simple business compared with many businesses which are carried on by private enterprise in this country. The work of the Post Office is comparatively simple, and it is a sphere in which my right hon. Friend might really show more enterprise in making new openings than has yet been shown. It is a difficulty of Government Departments that they tend to be most conservative in practice. The hon. Member for Down (Mr. Reid) urged that the commercial traveller method should be extended, and I think that might very well be done, because the need is really growing in the rural districts.

Lieut. - Colonel WATTS - MORGAN

Does the right hon. Gentleman suggest that there should be a telephone in every local public-house?


I feel surely that every local public-house would avail itself of the telephone if it could be brought within its reach by an enterprising Post Office. If the Post Office woud display the sort of energy that private telephone companies have displayed in America and other parts of the world, this country would be better served in the rural areas, and I do not believe that in the end the Post Office would lose much by going ahead of the public demand—of the paying demand—and, with real enterprise, pushing this in the rural areas. In Germany, which I knew before the War, the villages were far better served with telephones than was the case in this country. I do beg the right hon. Gentleman, a Labour Postmaster-General, believing firmly that he is far and away the best person to administer the telephone, telegraph and Post Office services, to display even more enterprise than private individuals in carrying on the business of his Department. In order not to encourage him to useless expenditure, I should like to ask him in What way he is going to write off the £17,000,000 which is now going to be spent? After all, telephone and telegraph apparatus wears out very quickly, and has not a very long life; and, even though this, perhaps, is against my earlier remarks, yet I am a little anxious to know how far he has a sound financial scheme for writing off that sum.


I should like to join with other hon. Members who have referred to this question of rural telephones, because, in a constituency like mine, some parts of which are over 1,400 feet above sea level, people requiring doctors, and so on, have great difficulties, especially in the winter months, when, in some places, the snow is sometimes several feet thick, and it is a matter of great hardship that they cannot obtain telephone facilities. With regard to the point mentioned by the hon. and gallant Member for Salisbury (Major Moulton), I remember that, when Mr. Kellaway was Postmaster-General, he arranged with a local landowner in one part of my constituency to take over the local Exchange, and the local landowner guaranteed the whole of the eight telephones. The result of that arrangement has been that the whole of those eight telephones have been taken up, and a great many more besides. The mere fact that a telephone service has been installed in that locality has encouraged people to take the telephone who would not otherwise have done so. When their neighbours are on, they want to be on, and the result has been a great success. I am sure that, if that could be done in the village mentioned by the hon. and gallant Member for Salisbury, there would be a great request for the telephone there. I should like to refer to a matter which the right hon. Gentleman has promised to give me some information about. There has been a rumour in Macclesfield that the automatic telephone service is going to be put on in that borough at the new post office which is going to be erected. The right hon. Gentleman indicated on the Financial Resolution that he would look into the matter and I should be grateful if he could give me any indication whether any of this amount is for that purpose.


I should like to add my tribute to that of others who have spoken to the great courtesy of the Postmaster-General. The matter I wish to refer to is the backward state of our telephonic communications in rural areas. We are far behind where we ought to be. One hon. Member has spoken of the telephone system in Germany. Others, perhaps know the magnificent system they have in Norway, where every farm in the country is linked up, and you can get a through call. We want to see our system worked up to something like that. Of course, it will take time and money. The great thing we have to do is to get a large number of subscribers. We have to get as many people as we can on to the system. The question of the guarantee stands greatly in the way of poor areas coming in. There ought to be a much greater elasticity in asking for this guarantee. You may have an area which is absolutely unable to put down the necessary money, and is, therefore, cut out of the system altogether. In our general Post Office system it is the short distance letter that pays for the long distance letter, and we ought to work the telephone system in the same way and see that a poor area is not penalised because it is poor, and that the richer areas should bear a portion of the burden.


I should like to call attention to the system of recording calls. It frequently happens when you ring up the exchange that you find the number is engaged. The operator tells you that and leaves you sitting there for some five minutes, and you have no other course but, just to wait your time. You ring up again, and possible get through, with luck, and at the end of the month, when the statement comes in, you are somewhat staggered if you take the number of calls which have really gone through. I think very frequently, through some inadvertance on the part of the recorder, one is charged more than once for one call. I should like the right hon. Gentleman to look into that. I took the trouble a few months ago to get my secretary to take down the number of calls she put through, and when my bill came in it was largely in excess of what I expected I had to pay. One has no redress whatever. One has to pay. I have heard from all sides that the Postmaster-General is a delightful fellow and kind hearted, and looking at his face I am sure it is true. I would ask him to remember the poor subscriber and to take this point into consideration. There is another point I should like to put before him. When a subscriber in the country is a long way from the exchange he is charged to a large extent for the mileage. If a more universal charge could be made, more revenue would be obtained if the price were considerably reduced. There is another point to which I should like to draw attention. If one is in the country, for instance, on the South Coast, and the exchange is Portsmouth, if I want to call Southampton I have to go through Portsmouth in order to be connected up with Southampton. The result is that the charge is rather heavy. If a system could be brought about to enable one to use both exchanges, the cost would not be so heavy. I wish to join in the chorus of praise of the right hon. Gentleman.


I should like to draw attention to the fact that a very large number of country railway stations are not on the telephone. This operates rather hardly on farmers. Stock may arrive at the station and the station may be miles away from the village or the farm, and the farmer has no means of knowing whether the stock has arrived unless he sends a man to the station. The railway companies are wealthy institutions, and it would be an immense boon to the farmers and the people in rural areas if telephones were installed at the country stations. I can confirm what has been said by the hon. Member (Mr. E. Brown) with regard to the inconvenience caused by the closing of village post offices on days other than the local half holiday. In many cases when the village post office is closed there is no means of telephonic communication except for people who are fortunate enough to have telephones installed in their own houses. It would be advantageous in many cases if Saturday was made the closing day for the rural post office.


When this matter was before the House on the Financial Resolution I put a question to the Postmaster-General. Possibly the Financial Secretary ought to be here to deal with the point, but we all know that he has had a very heavy morning. The last Bill, the Public Works Loans Bill, with which we have dealt, involved a sum of £25,000,000. This Bill involves an expenditure of £17,000,000, making the enormous total of £42,000,000. I realise the necessity for the expenditure of the £17,00,000, but I hope the nation will get value for that amount. I notice that in Clause 1, Subsection (2), the Postmaster-General can borrow by terminal annuities, while Subsection (4) states: The Treasury may also, if they think fit, for the same purpose borrow money by moans of the issue of Exchequer Bonds. There is a great difference between borrowing on terminal annuities and borrowing on Exchequer Bonds. The latter might be absolutely detrimental to a national debt if a flotation was made. I should like an answer on this point, even if the right hon. Gentleman cannot give an answer to-day.


I should like to make an appeal on behalf of the rural districts, particularly in agricultural areas. If we are going to give State assistance towards the development of agriculture, I know of no means that would assist it more, by getting into touch with markets, and at such a little cost to the community as the linking up of these districts by means of telephonic communication. It seems to me that with the general agreement of the House on all sides, the Postmaster-General ought to give careful consideration to the applications that have been put to his department. It has been my responsibility to put forward a case in the North Somerset section of my division where we have got a large community of farmers who are cut off from the Bristol and other markets, simply because they are unable to get a guarantee to instal the exchange. This is a heavy part of the whole cost, and it is extremely difficult to get a number of people to guarantee the amount. Last year we voted money for technical and scientific development and research in agriculture, but here is a practical way of helping the people to help themselves, because there is no readier or happier means of helping agriculture than by linking those engaged in agriculture up with markets of easy access. It would be better for the farmer to go to the telephone and to get in touch with the markets than to have to leave his farm day after day to keep in touch with the markets. The House should not look at this purely as a commercial proposition, but, looking at it as a means of developing our farming areas, we might well afford to put down these installations at an immediate loss in the hope that agriculture will get a great fillip from it, and that there will be a good economic return to the community at large.


I would like to reply as briefly as I can in reference to the important questions which have been raised. In the main, hon. Members have dealt with improved rural facilities, but one or two points outside that have been raised by the right hon. Member for Cambourne (Mr. Leif Jones). He asked about the financial conditions for the repayment of £17,000,000. I need only say in relation to that matter that the Post Office will repay these loans by annuities extending over 20 years. Already there has been an expenditure on the telephone of about £69,500,000, and £25,500,000 have been repaid. The hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Remer) wanted to know whether any of this £17,000,000 is going to Macclesfield. I find that it has been decided to erect a new Post Office in Macclesfield, at a cost of £28,000, £11,000 of which would be for a new exchange. As far as that expenditure is concerned, it will appear as part of the capital expenditure. Another question was with reference to the half-holiday. Nobody would desire that the postmen or those associated with the telephones should be deprived of the half-holiday, and the Post Office, in arranging for the half-holiday, would desire to consult with the local authorities and arrange a day in agreement with them so as to cause the least possible inconvenience to the business community.

An hon. Member opposite referred to the question of overcharging for telephone calls. I have had some complaints on that score. Business men have said: "We keep a record and we find that we are overcharged." In each case of that sort I have said to the officials, "Put two persons on and let me have reports. Keep a record of every call and do not say anything about it. At the end of the period ask the business people to produce their record, and compare it." in every case, although it is a rather expensive business to institute these checks, where it has been undertaken the persons complaining have had to admit that they have been in the wrong and that the Post Office record is right.

Lieut.-Colonel Sir F. HALL

Has not someone had an idea that the tests are being made?


I welcome complaints of a genuine character, because I am as anxious as anyone to remove real causes of complaint. It is only by having the complaints reported to us that we can find out where the difficulties are and remedy them.


The reason for the complaint in such a case as I have referred to is, I think, that when you get through to the Exchange, and the Exchange says that the number wanted is engaged, you then ring up two or three times, and the subscriber is charged excessively.


I have heard that complaint before, but under the test it does not stand. If my hon. Friend will give me instances I shall be pleased to institute a check in those cases too.


Let me know when the check is in progress.


On the general question of improved rural facilities I shall say only this. Whether the points raised relate to guarantees or fewer persons on an Exchange or reduced charges, they are all phases of the same subject. I am looking into this matter with very great sympathy, and with the desire to bring about as great an improvement as possible. But it is necessary to keep one fact in mind. The rural areas of Britain have not been developed as telephone areas, and this is a big undertaking. We are opening daily one new Exchange, all at a loss, and before we get too big a volume of this unremunerative return, it is necessary to go slowly. I agree that in relation to the telephone system it is absolutely essential, in the best interests of the community, that we should carry a certain fringe of unremunerative business. But we must take care that it is not too big. I am hoping that with the development of these Exchanges, as soon as there are 15 subscribers, the prices will be reduced from £2 per quarter to £1 7s. 6d. per quarter, and that as the telephone becomes more popular in these areas where we have established Exchanges, the loss will be reduced, and that we may allow more generous terms in those areas and bring in possibly an Exchange for fewer subscribers than eight. Perhaps for the moment the House will accept the statement that we have done all that we possibly can if we are to keep on the safe side.

Colonel Sir C. YATE

Has the right hon. Gentleman studied this system of telephones in agricultural Norway?

Question, "That the Bill be now read a Second time," put, and agreed to.

Bill read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Committee of the Whole House for Monday next (14th July).—[Mr. Hartshorn.]